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Texas Death Row Inmate and Prosecutor Jointly Urge U.S. Supreme Court to Vacate Capital Conviction Based on Faulty DNA Evidence

Tomorrow, Texas death row inmate Areli Escobar’s petition for a writ of certiorari will be distributed to the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, urging them to summarily reverse or grant full review of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision upholding his capital conviction. The State of Texas has taken the unusual step of filing a response brief joining Mr. Escobar in seeking to have his conviction vacated, because it was secured based on DNA and other forensic evidence processed by a state lab that Texas closed after discovering failures so abject that the lab could not be salvaged. The relief that Mr. Escobar and Texas seek is supported by the American Bar Association, the Innocence Network and the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences, Inc. and former State Attorneys General, United States Attorneys, and state prosecutors from across the political and law-enforcement spectrum.

Mr. Escobar was convicted of capital murder in Texas state court largely based on false DNA evidence and sentenced to death. Because it was seemingly a stranger-on-stranger offense with no eyewitnesses, Texas acknowledges that it relied heavily on DNA and other forensic evidence to present its case. But the State later audited the lab that processed the forensic evidence presented during Mr. Escobar’s trial and discovered grave, systemic deficiencies at every level. The revelations prompted the criminal district judges of Travis County to send a joint letter to the Austin City Council, suggesting that the “problems discovered” by the State’s audit “raise questions about every determination made by the lab.”

Upon learning of the lab’s widely reported failures, Mr. Escobar filed an application for habeas relief. After taking evidence and testimony from both sides over the course of years, the Texas habeas court issued over 400 findings of fact and conclusions of law, determining that the DNA evidence used to convict Mr. Escobar was false, misleading, and unreliable, and was reasonably likely to have influenced the jury’s decision. Thus, the habeas court recommended that Mr. Escobar’s conviction be vacated. After the state habeas court issued its exhaustive decision, the District Attorney undertook a thorough review of the record and trial court proceedings, ultimately agreeing that Mr. Escobar’s federal due process rights were violated and that he is entitled to a new trial.

However, despite the agreement of Mr. Escobar, the prosecution, and the state habeas court, the Texas CCA denied relief in a terse, three-page opinion, holding that there is no reasonable likelihood that the false DNA evidence could have affected the jury’s judgment, without even acknowledging the prosecution’s contrary view.

Mr. Escobar filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, seeking summary reversal or, alternatively, plenary review. Three sets of prominent amici curiae with subject matter expertise, representing divergent viewpoints, filed amicus briefs supporting Mr. Escobar. The American Bar Association has taken the rare step of filing an amicus brief calling for summary reversal due to the mishandling of the DNA evidence in the case, which violated multiple ABA standards. The Innocence Network and the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences filed an amicus brief calling for summary reversal because the “jury relied” on “wholly unreliable” DNA evidence to convict Mr. Escobar, as well as shoe-print and latent fingerprint evidence that “was also unreliable.” And former State Attorneys General, United States Attorneys, and state prosecutors from across the political spectrum filed an amicus brief arguing for summary reversal because the Texas CCA “fail[ed] to give due regard to the prosecution’s confession of error.” Failing to reverse, according to these former law-enforcement officials, would be a “miscarriage of justice in this capital case.”

Perhaps most unusual, Texas filed a brief of respondent supporting Mr. Escobar’s petition, agreeing that the Supreme Court “should grant a writ of certiorari summarily reversing the judgment below and remanding, or, alternatively, for plenary review.” The State’s attorneys found “that the State had offered flawed and misleading forensic evidence at [Mr. Escobar’s] trial and this evidence was material to the outcome of his case in violation of clearly established federal due process law.” “In refusing to acknowledge the State’s admission of error, the CCA,” according to Texas, “undermined the District Attorney’s historical role in the criminal justice system and failed to remedy the federal due process violation that both parties and the District Court agreed occurred.”

Mr. Escobar filed his reply brief today, summarizing why the parties, habeas court, and prominent amici are all correct that his conviction should be vacated. He further explains that denying his petition would force him to seek federal habeas relief and subject him to standards that are by design much more difficult to meet—an unjust result, especially since all the parties and distinguished amici agree that relief is so clearly warranted.

The case is Escobar v. Texas, No. 21-1601 (U.S.). The Supreme Court Clerk’s Office will distribute the petition tomorrow, and the Justices will consider at their October 28, 2022 conference whether to grant the relief that all parties and amici seek.